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Lehigh Canal Upper Division explored by PA Canal Society

  • PA CANAL SOCIETY Bridge connecting Monroe and Luzerne Counties is viewed above the Great Falls of the Lehigh River at Stoddartsville, the most northern reach of the Lehigh Navigation System.
    PA CANAL SOCIETY Bridge connecting Monroe and Luzerne Counties is viewed above the Great Falls of the Lehigh River at Stoddartsville, the most northern reach of the Lehigh Navigation System.
Published April 27. 2010 05:00PM

Carbon County's Upper Grand Division of the Lehigh Canal was the topic for the Pennsylvania Canal Society's Spring 2010 Field Trip, on April 16 through 18.

Dozens of members toured the remains of some of the tallest canal locks ever constructed; listened to discussions about the canal and the towns and industries they supported; and viewed a series of circa mid-1920s glass slides.

National Canal Museum historian Lance Metz presented images of the Upper Grand Division of the Lehigh Canal taken from a set of 50 glass slides photographed by George Atwell Richardson of Bethlehem.

In the 1970s, with Richardson was in his eighties, he gave the slides to the Pennsylvania Canal Society through its representatives Harry Rinker and John P. Miller. Miller is the author of The Lehigh Canal: A Thumb Nail History, 1829-1931-which was written in 1979 for the Sesquicentennial of the opening of the Lehigh Canal.

The slides were taken with a four-inch by five-inch camera in black and white, and hand-tinted before mounting. Metz noted that this was the last public showing of the slides. Soon, the images will be transferred to digital media and the originals retired to the archives of the Museum.

Before beginning his presentation, Metz discussed the difficulty of using the glass slides. He noted that they were fragile, sensitive to moisture, and subject to overheating in the vintage projectors.

The presentation provided a summary of the history of the Lehigh Canal with particular emphasis on the Upper Grand Division. In the audience was an additional resource, Joan Gilbert - author of Gateway to the Coalfields - The Upper Grand Section of the Lehigh Canal.

The slides began with an overview of Carbon County and its relationship to the anthracite regions of Pennsylvania: the Great Northern Wyoming Field, the Eastern Middle Field around Hazleton, the Western Middle Field, and the Great Southern Field in Schuylkill County.

Then the slides highlighted Lehigh anthracite pioneers Jacob Weiss - who purchased 10,000-acres for the Lehigh Coal Mine Company, and Josiah White, the founder of the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company. Their development of the Great Mine in Summit Hill created the initial need for a canal system to deliver coal to Philadelphia. That was achieved in 1827. Around 1838, the Lehigh Canal Upper Grand Division extended it to White Haven to connect with coal coming to it by railroad from the Wyoming Valley.

The most northern point of the navigation system was at Stoddartsville, a hamlet constructed to use the hydro power of the Great Falls of the Lehigh River to mill Wyoming Valley wheat into flour. Several one-way "Bear Trap" were installed between there and White Haven for this purpose. Richardson captured the remains of these locks which have since virtually disappeared.

Even when Richardson captured these images in the 1920s, the Upper Division had been out of operation since 1862, when heavy rains caused a million board feet of stored lumber to cascade down the river, destroying most of the stone-filled wooden cribbing dams. After that "freshet," only two dams were rebuilt: the dam above White Haven, which was used to power saw mills, and the dam above Mauch Chunk.

Perhaps the most significant of the slides was of Lock #27 near the Lehigh Tannery. It had a lift of 30-feet, the highest in the system, allowing canal boats to pass through a 306-foot wide dammed section of the river.

At Penn Haven, Richardson captured a rather unique railroad town. Although families lived in the approximately 25 buildings at the village, there were no roads to it. It was among the twelve communities east of the Mississippi River that could only be accessed by railroad. In its history, Penn Haven was the junction of the Central of New Jersey, Lehigh Valley, Beaver Meadow, and Hazleton Railroads.

Following Metz's presentation, Gordon Perry presented views of lock ruins and canal features as they currently appear. On Saturday and Sunday, members of the Society toured the Upper Grand Canal, Stoddartsville, the Weatherly Lehigh Valley Railroad shops, Glen Onoko, the Mount Pisgah Plane, the Switchback Gravity Railroad, and the Mauch Chunk Museum. John Drury and Michael Nonnemacher of the Mauch Chunk Museum gave a presentation on historic Mauch Chunk.

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